J. Michael Luttig gave just gave up his seat on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals for a job as VP/General Counsel at Boeing. In doing so, he probably moved up his annual income ($171,000 as a judge, with few-to-no outside earnings opportunities) by an order of magnitude: maybe more, counting non-cash compensation.
This has become a trend in recent years, and it’s not a trend favorable to the rule of law.
Lifetime judicial tenure (service “during good behavior”) was a fundamental demand of the liberal revolutionaries in 17th-century England. It was important for two reasons. First, it kept the government of the day from ensuring favorable verdicts by firing judges who might rule the “wrong” way. Second, it allowed the judges to focus on the demands of the law rather than worrying about how to keep their jobs. Otherwise, ruling against a powerful litigant might put a judge’s job at risk.
That works fine if judges intend to take advantage of their lifetime tenure. But it doesn’t work as well once they start to regard judicial appointments as mere stepping-stones to jobs with law firms or corporations.
It won’t matter for routine corporation v. corporation battles where both sides have giant law firms. But a judge who takes a strongly pro-plaintiff view in tort suits or a pro-employee view in labor-relations, wages-and-hours, job-safety, or employment-discrimination cases, or who rules for the litigant represented by a solo practitioner against one represented by one of the many branches of Pig, Pig & Pig has to figure that he or she is cutting into future employment opportunities.
The massive, blatant corruption that now infects the Executive Branch and the Congress is, we can hope, episodic and temporary, though the more fundamental corruption that operates through campaign finance will remain. But until now we’ve had a reasonable hope that the courts, at least, are more or less honest. It would be a shame to lose that.
At some point, we’re going to have to deal with the growing gap between the salaries of top public officials and the compensation available in the private sector. Wouldn’t it be nice if a Congressman could afford to buy lunch for a lobbyist every once in a while?